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Heinkel He 177 Bomber Was a ‘Flying Tinderbox’ During World War II

The Greif brought grief to the Luftwaffe

Adolf Hitler talked about the Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffin) bomber in a meeting with his military staff on Feb. 1, 1943.

Speaking to Generaloberst (Colonel General) Hans Jeschonnek, chief of staff of the Luftwaffe as part of a rambling exchange about tanks and aircraft, the Führer said:

“I have to say again and again: I consider the whole 177 model a mistake because it was demonstrated already during the Great War that the problem of installing two engines on one shaft is extremely difficult to solve, and has led to constant difficulties.”

The He 177 may not have been Hitler’s biggest mistake – there is a long roster of candidates – but it was a mistake on the part of planemaker Ernst Heinkel’s design team and the Luftwaffe. It personifies the failure of the wartime German air arm to equip itself with long-range bombers.

It was classified as a heavy bomber. Its promised performance was better than any bomber in the world, carrying two tons of bombs to targets 1,400 miles inside enemy territory at 225 miles per hour. It would have enabled the Luftwaffe to reach Allied convoys in the Atlantic and Soviet installations beyond the Ural Mountains.

HE 177 In Flight

A Heinkel He 177 V5 heavy bomber prototype in flight, ca. 1942/43. U.S. Navy photo

Instead of enhancing the offensive striking power of the Luftwaffe the He 177 became renowned for structural flaws, engine issues (including frequent engine fires) and an overall lack of reliability. The tail surfaces had to be redesigned and enlarged. There were constant problems not only with the coupled engines but with the complex, 14-foot, 8-inch, four-bladed propellers.

Strong Specifications

Developed beginning in 1939, the He 177 was designed to a German Air Ministry specification calling for a heavy bomber with an ordnance load of at least 4,400 pounds. While it was being prepared for its first flight, Generaloberst Ernst Udet, perhaps Germany’s most famous pilot, persuaded the Luftwaffe to decree that all combat aircraft should be capable of dive-bombing in the manner of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka.  Jeschonnek continued this policy after Udet’s death in 1941. This impossible requirement for a heavy bomber dictated the twinned-engine configuration that was at the heart of the Greif’s multitude of troubles.

The He 177 looked like a twin-engined bomber. Its twinned engines were contained in each of two nacelles making it a four-engined bomber – sort of. The concept relied on the Daimler Benz DB 606 twin engine, which took two 1,350-horsepower DB 601A-1/B-1 inverted V inline engines and placed them side by side, with the inner cylinders almost vertical, producing an inverted W. The engines were prone to overheating and in-flight engine fires were common. Six of the original eight aircraft were lost, most due to engine fires, and many of the first 35 production aircraft (with Ernst Heinkel in disfavor, the planes were built mainly by Arado) also suffered the same fate.

The He 177V-1 prototype made its initial flight on Nov. 9, 1939, with Leutnant Carl Francke, chief of the Rechlin flight test center, at the controls. The flight ended abruptly after 12 minutes because of overheating engines. Francke spoke favorably about the bomber’s general handling characteristics but complained of vibration in the propeller shafts, inadequate tail surfaces, and flutter that accompanied any vigorous movement of the elevators.

He 177

Maintenance of the troublesome engines of a He 177. Bundesarchive photo

This was the beginning of a long series of fires, accidents and crashes. In June 1942, Luftwaffe air inspector Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Erhard Milch and Armaments Minister Albert Speer were visiting a base for a different purpose when they watched a new He 177 take off with a full bombload. After it flew from sight, the Greif banked steeply and sideslipped into the ground from 500 feet up, killing everyone aboard. Milch learned afterward that he had not been told of several other fatal accidents.

In The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe, a biography of Milch, author David Irving wrote of Luftwaffe chief Reichsmarschall (Marshal of the Realm) Hermann Göring complaining about Jeschonnek’s requirement for dive-bombing capability. “It is straightforward idiocy to ask of a four-engined bomber that it should dive,” said Göring. “Had I been told of this for one moment, I should have exclaimed at once: what kind of nonsense is that?” But the design was set in place by then or, as Göring put it, “Now we are stuck with it.”

Irving wrote that Milch carped, “What use is the best aircraft in the world if it can’t stop falling apart?”

Changing Configurations

As engineers kept redesigning the He 177, they introduced new versions of the bomber, which were then modified further in the field. Front-line armorers at Stalingrad, which was re-supplied at great cost by a half-dozen He 177As used as transports, installed a 50 mm BK-5 anti-tank gun under the nose. A separate effort to install a 75 mm cannon produced new aerodynamic problems and was cancelled after five He 177A-3/R-5s received the guns.

He 177 During Dive-bombing

He 177A in a shallow dive. The He 177 was meant to have dive-bombing capabilities, a ridiculous requirement for a four-engined heavy bomber. Bundesarchiv photo

None of the changes could overcome the inherent faults in the He 177, including a tendency to swerve sharply sideways on takeoff. Troops called it the “Luftwaffe Lighter” (referring to a cigarette lighter) or the “Flying Tinderbox.”‘

Until manufacture of all aircraft other than fighters was virtually halted in October 1944, Heinkel and Arado built about 1,100 He 177s, including 826 examples of the He 177A-5 model, which was much improved over earlier versions. The usefulness of the bomber did not improve. On one occasion, Göring watched 14 aircraft taxi out for late-war attacks on London. Thirteen took off. Eight returned immediately with overheating engines, one diverted elsewhere and four actually reached London, but one was shot down.

The He 177 was the largest German aircraft operated over Britain during the war. Aviation archeologist Julian Evan-Hart is excavating the site of an He 177 that was shot down by a Royal Air Force Mosquito in 1944 near the Essex town of Saffron.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-29747">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    The real story here is that the Luftwaffe was administratively a mess. Bob’s detailing of the fiasco about the development of this bomber is a well researched and well written indictment not just about the program but about the Luftwaffe strategic plan. Another fine contribution from Mr. Dorr!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-32265">

    great article, quite a contrast to the US which produced 3 good long range bombers B-17, B-24 and B-29

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-34619">

    The A5 had no where near the amount of problems the earlier models did, your production figures for that model are off by ~300, and they operated with plenty of success on the Eastern Front.

    And the B-29 had plenty of teething problems as well. Let’s not sit and rewrite history here.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-34757">

    The A-5 was an improvement, and you are absolutely right on the production figure being wrong, as Wagner and Nowarra have it at 826 for the A-5. The 565 number was for production of the model in 1944 alone. Thanks for pointing that out. We should have caught that and the correction’s been made.

    While the A-5 improved on some of the problems, however, the engine troubles were never fully solved. Consider: When KG 1 went into action on the Russian front in June 1944 (A-5s began appearing in service in 1943), they had nearly 100 Greifs on strength, but lost 19 planes between March 15 and June 10 before any serious action began! A 19 percent loss rate without even being engaged in heavy combat is unacceptable. When Operation Steinbock began in January 1944 against London, a majority of the He 177s of I/KG 40 and I/KG 100 aborted due to engine overheating or outright fires.

    Wikipedia and other sources, many of which echo the Wikipedia entry, point out that the A-5 had enlarged nacelles that supposedly cured the engine fires problem, as well as a lengthened rear fuselage that aided lateral stability. But although some 56 changes were made on a single example of an A-5 at Rechlin, to solve the engine overheating/fires problem, those changes were adopted where possible as the production line was running, because stopping production to make all the changes standard was considered unacceptable. It is almost impossible to know what or how many of the changes were incorporated on what number of production aircraft.

    The speed, range, and payload of the Greif, and its operational capabilities when it worked correctly, were obviously very good. The Luftwaffe adjusted tactics to most wisely employ the qualities of the aircraft and they sometimes, as you point out, did quite well with it, but it never overcame its reputation as a fractious, fragile aircraft.

    As for the B-29, see Robert F. Dorr’s article here:

    As you can see by reading it, he hardly downplays the B-29’s teething troubles.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-154568">

    I have no idea what you all are talking about. Yes the early HE-177 had problems with the DB-606 engines , But it was only 173 of the early DB-606 models made. The rest 964 produced had the problems corrected with the DB-610 engines. I also have no idea were the 225 mph came from. The HE-177 with the DB-610 had a top speed of 351mph at 19,685 ft. This was a great performing bomber and successfull, Heinkel did start working on something new untill all bomber production was cancelled.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-154575">

    The engines weren’t the sole problem. There were other causes for the fires. Many other causes. Simply replacing the engines wouldn’t have been enough. As for the speed, figures between 225 mph and 258 mph (A-5) have been published for the aircraft’s cruising speed with payload, which is still a good 50-75 mph faster than a B-17G. A top speed of 351 mph is indeed great performance, but it isn’t going to happen while you’re trying to carry a full payload to a distant target. Nice to have once the bombs are dropped, though, and I have no doubt that clean and empty of bombs it could go faster than any other four-engined bomber of the time. Problems with handling were never satisfactorily solved, and in-flight airframe failures also occurred, despite a fuselage and wings that were supposed to be stressed for dive-bombing! The great British test pilot Eric “Winkle” Brown, at least, thought some of the problem might be from overly effective elevators, but he also said it was one of the few German aircraft he didn’t like to fly because of its handling characteristics, and that he always felt it was a fragile aircraft.